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Publish or Perish?

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005; 10:18 AM

The world seems to be divided into two camps these days: those who are upset over the domestic eavesdropping program and those who are mad at the New York Times for revealing it.

If there's a better political Rorschach test out there, I haven't seen it.

I'm not saying that everyone who expressed outrage over the National Security Agency's no-warrant spying is a Bush-basher or that everyone who has questioned the Times's decision to run with the story (or walk with the story, since it was delayed by a year) is a Bush-loving media hater. After all, some Republicans are criticizing the surveillance and demanding hearings, though none has gone anywhere near as far as Howard Dean in comparing Bush to Nixon.

And it's possible to have a healthy respect for the press and believe this is a story that the Times should have held back (though the real anger here is on the left, where some can't understand why the paper didn't publish this information during the '04 campaign and one magazine editor has even called for Bill Keller's resignation).

But the dispute reflects a pretty basic split. If you believe the president must do everything in his power to prevail in the war on terror, then newspaper stories outing secret programs seem to damage that effort. If you believe that unchecked presidential power and the erosion of civil liberties means we're abandoning the very freedoms we're supposed to be fighting for, then you're rooting for journalists to keep turning over rocks.

Ed Morrissey , in the Weekly Standard, questions the big fuss:

"As the New York Times undoubtedly discovered during its research, the NSA probably never broke the law at all, and certainly nothing uncovered in their article indicates any evidence that they did. Neither did President Bush in ordering the NSA to actually follow the law in aggressively pursuing the intelligence leads provided by their capture of terrorists in the field. The only real news that the Times provided is that the government didn't need the 9/11 Commission to tell it to use all the tools at its disposal.

"So why publish the story at all? The Washington Post published a behind-the-scenes look at the Times's editorial decision and found a couple of motivations for the decision to dust off the story which had been spiked during the election year. With the Patriot Act up for renewal, the current headlines finally provided a political context that would make the story a blockbuster--not because it describes illegal activity, but because it plays into fears about the rise of Orwellian Big Brother government from the Bush administration. The second impetus to publish came from the upcoming release of James Risen's book, State of War, due to be released in less than a month.

"It had to dismay the editors at the Times, then, when an angry President Bush came out the next day, the day after that, and the day after that to take personal responsibility for the NSA effort. Bush called the Risen/Lichtblau bluff. Had there been any scandal, the president would hardly have run in front of a camera to admit to ordering the program. He changed the course of the debate and now has the Times and his other critics backpedaling.

"The timing and questionable news value of the story opens the question about the motivation of the Times's editors. Has the Times allowed its anti-Bush bias to warp its judgment so badly that it deliberately undermined a critical part of America's defenses against terrorist attack to try to damage the president?"

Um, if it's such a non-big-deal, why have five senators, including two Republicans, demanded hearings?

American Prospect executive editor Michael Tomasky is out of patience with the Times:


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